Brazilian Habitat III forum draws energy from legal action over public space

A unique Urban Thinkers Campus coincided with a court decision in a longstanding standoff over a wharf in Recife, in northeastern Brazil.
Performers take part in the Urban Thinkers Campus in Recife, Brazil, 27 November (Rafael Medeiros/Flickr/cc)

A decision handed down by a Brazilian federal judge last month seemed to have brought an end to three years’ worth of protest over the future of a derelict pier in downtown Recife, the country’s fifth-largest city.

Coming on 27 November, the judge’s decision to annul the government’s auction of a former train depot and sugar warehouse to real estate developers was a fitting capstone to the four-day Urban Thinkers Campus (UTC) in the capital of Pernambuco state, in Brazil’s northeast.

By coming down on the side of activists who resisted the privatization of one of the few public spaces in the historic seaside city, the largest in northeastern Brazil, justice appeared to favour the right to the city and the public realm — key themes of Habitat III, next year’s U. N. conference on urbanization. The UTC was one of more than two dozen such events, organized by the World Urban Campaign, aimed at gathering stakeholder input ahead of Habitat III.

[See: All of Citiscope’s coverage of the Urban Thinkers Campuses]

The Recife event brought out “an enormous variety of people”, according to organizer Ricardo Ruiz, project manager at the City Research and Innovation Lab at the Federal University of Pernambuco, which organized the campus with support from the Brazilian Ministry of Cities. Ruiz rattled off a diverse list of attendees, including “biologists, cultural activists, LGBT, policy wonks, nerds”.

There was also overlap between the campus and the the Occupy Estelita Movement, as the campaign over the pier, begun in 2012, is known. The José Estelita Wharf is a 10.2-hectare (25.2 acre) site on one of the islands that comprises downtown Recife. During the 19th century, it was a hub for the sugar industry and a terminus of the second railroad in Brazil, but by the 20th century the site had fallen into disrepair.

In 2008, the federal government sold the wharf at auction to a consortium of real estate developers and construction firms. In turn, this group planned to build 100,000 square metres (1.1 million square feet) of luxury commercial, residential and hotel developments in high rises up to 40 stories high.

[See: Public space: Integrating urban ‘living rooms’ into global development]

As the consortium’s vision, called Novo Recife, trickled out via public meetings in 2012, a group of lawyers, architects, academics, journalists, artists and others organized to defeat the project. They were concerned with the effect of the massive development on the surrounding neighborhood. Very tall buildings would block ventilation on some sides in the perpetually humid tropical city, they warned, and on others these structures would create wind tunnels in an area of low-slung historic structures. The proposed parking for 5,000 cars was also at odds with the image of a walkable, transit-friendly downtown.

Despite their vocal opposition at hearings of the city’s Urban Development Commission, demolition began last year. In response, the Occupy Estelita Movement camped out on the site for 58 days to prevent further demolition. The move made headlines across Brazil, even garnering a pledge of solidarity from Raquel Rolnik, the former U. N. special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing.

In the streets

This recent history of direct action gave a “reclaim the streets” flavor to the Recife UTC, according to Ruiz, with debates about urban space taking place literally in the street. Some 500 people registered for the UTC, but Ruiz estimates that 1,000 were involved in the open-air activities.

In part, participants were drawn by the discussions of diagnostics and proposals for nine themes of the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year urbanization strategy that will come out of Habitat III. But they were also drawn by nightly parties with the mobile sound system Som Na Rural, which turned a Recife street into a public space showcasing the city’s vibrant culture. Indeed, Recife’s Carnival music, known as frevo, is recognized by UNESCO as important cultural heritage.

And with what sounded like a decisive judicial victory on the last day of the campus, the UTC went out with a bang. For invited speaker Pedro Henrique de Cristo, principal of + D / Design with Purpose in Rio de Janeiro, a design firm focused on favela communities, the example of the Occupy Estelita Movement was inspiring.

“We need political, urban design and technological initiatives that integrate with one another, produce results and have the capacity to scale up into public policy,” he said, citing the Recife movement as a good example.

“For Brazil’s contribution to the [Habitat III] agenda, the focus on social integration, sustainability and resilience on the part of civil society, academia and other experts is the message we need to pass along to governments,” he added.

[See: Urban SDG indicator on public space improved, next up, national urban policies]

Unfortunately for Recife’s UTC crowd, this is a message that can be hard to spread. On 16 December, an appeals court overturned the November decision, allowing Novo Recife to inch forward.

Undeterred, the Occupy Estelita Movement sprang into action. On 21 December, activists camped out in Recife’s city hall. The next day, they blocked entrances to the building in an attempt to cancel an Urban Development Commission meeting that they claimed was being held behind closed doors.

For now, partying in the streets will have to take a back seat to marching in the streets.

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